Back in 2013 Bath and North East Somerset Council Council responded to residents in three wards, Widcombe, Westmoreland and Oldfield Park, who were complaining about too many students houses. Extra regulations were imposed, making it more difficult for future applications to be granted for what are termed “Houses of Multiple Occupancy” (HMO).
This all seemed well and good because we would all understand the concerns of residents who didn’t want their streets turned into a student hall of residence. However, now the Council is considering making the rules even tighter in those wards and possibly even applying them right across the City.
Unfortunately there is often a law of unintended consequences when new rules are brought in and I fear that might be the case here.
Because it’s not just students who rely on HMO, it’s also young working people who can’t afford to rent a whole property themselves, let alone buy one. They need something of decent quality which they can afford, ideally within walking or cycling distance of the city. And we need them to stay to live and work in Bath, bringing their talents and enthusiasm to help businesses develop and grow.
The simple truth is that if the supply of HMO falls, then prices are bound to rise and then we run the real risk of seeing those valuable young people being forced out of the market and taking their skills elsewhere.
So what’s the answer ? First and foremost I think we need to establish the true scale of demand for this kind of accommodation over the next ten years. The Universities can predict the likely growth in student numbers and the percentage who will need to live off campus. Similarly, we can estimate how many additional younger workers are likely to take up jobs in the Enterprise Zone.
Once we have an idea of how many HMO will be required we can take a strategic approach to providing them so that they don’t overwhelm any individual neighbourhood. That information would also be useful in helping to shape what other kinds of housing are needed in the next decade and where they should be built.
What we definitely don’t need is an overly complex regulatory system. We do need to provide affordable places for young workers to live – our economy and future prosperity will depend on them.